Overhaul Immigration Now, or Arizona May Be the Future


Gov. Jan Brewer and those of us who believe in compassionate and fair immigration laws are in complete agreement on one thing: The Draconian bill she signed into law recently is the result of the federal government failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

Like Brewer, HIAS is frustrated with the inaction in Washington, and the resulting effect it has had on local communities across the country. Yet unlike the Arizona governor, we believe that our value system as Americans and as Jews — which protects human dignity above all else — must never be jeopardized.

For Jews, especially, the question, "Where are your papers?" raises the dual specters of Nazi Europe and the Soviet Union. Within living memory, some of us were forced to identify ourselves by yellow stars, and many of us by having "Yevrey" ("Jew" in Russian) stamped on our identification papers.

The situation in Arizona, though very different from these tragic memories, nevertheless resonates strongly. Once it takes effect later this year, the Immigration; Law Enforcement; Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070) will require everyone in the state of Arizona to carry government-issued identification at all times.

Despite the police-training programs Brewer mandated after the law was signed to prevent racial profiling — and the new act passed by Arizona late last week that changes the law to specify that when deciding whom to question about immigration status, police may not use race, ethnicity or national origin as a factor — discrimination seems unavoidable.

For legal residents who will be pulled over based solely on the color of their skin or questioned due to their accents, the reaction no doubt will alternate between shame and rage. This legislation will pit segments of society against each other, resulting in increased hate rhetoric and racial tension.

In the book of Deuteronomy 16:12, we are commanded to establish a fair justice system: "And they shall judge the people with righteous justice." We are further instructed: "You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizens alike" (Leviticus 24:22). We believe these passages have great relevance today, and that advocating for the rights of immigrants reflects the Jewish mandate to uphold a fair justice system.

Undocumented immigrants are not the only ones who suffer under our broken immigration system. Employers, workers, families and America's proud tradition of welcoming immigrants become victims of this law.

Enforcement-only approaches have been tried and have failed because the motivation to flee grinding poverty –like that experienced by our relatives who came from Eastern Europe — is so great.

As Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor and current secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said: "If you build a 50-foot-high fence or wall, they will build a 51-foot ladder."

HIAS believes that the only humane answer to an inhumane law is comprehensive immigration reform, similar to the bipartisan legislation courageously introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) in 2005.

Congress must enact immigration reform. It must do so for these reasons: to establish border protection and enforcement policies that bolster our national security; enhance enforcement, while promoting economic development and human and civil rights; keep families together and decrease the waiting time for family reunification; create pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; devise a plan for future migration flows in order to protect all workers' rights; and empower immigrants to fully integrate into American society by providing financial support to local governments and community organizations that offer classes and services.

The Torah commands us to "welcome the stranger" and to "treat the stranger as ourselves." It is an injunction stated in one way or another no less than 36 times in our sacred text.

The new Arizona law blatantly rejects the strangers among us, trumpeting a hateful, anti-immigrant message that will reverberate through American society and far beyond our borders.

The United States can be a light unto the nations by establishing a just and humane immigration system. Without Congress taking a leadership role on immigration, we can expect other states to follow the situation that has now come to pass in Arizona.

Now is the time for the Jewish community to stand together in defense of all immigrants — for we, too, were once strangers.

By not demanding immediate action from our national leaders, we betray both our Jewish teachings and our American heritage as a country built by immigrants.

Gideon Aronoff is president and CEO of HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community, and the oldest refugee rescue and resettlement agency in the United States.


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